TGIFriday: What’s new in my camera bag? The Alpa Focus Stacking system

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Follow-up to my adventure with the Alpa STC Silver Edition, I was also sent the Alpa Focus Stacking system for a test run. And test it we did. We used the system in several of our shoots at LVMH Watch Week, as well as for the some Watches & Wonders Preview. What was in our bag during those shoots? Here is a brief run down.

Let me start off by first saying that using the Focus Stacking System is a daunting proposition. Not only is the system rather complex to setup, it has its usage quirks which make the learning curve particularly steep. But when the system is mastered, it is magnificent. Possibly the most advanced focus stacking system available.

TGIFriday: What’s new in my camera bag? The Alpa Focus Stacking system

But without further ado, let me show you what is in the bag. The bag is a Pelican like case, I am not sure the origin as Alpa does not state, but it looks like the Nanuk 935 case, with a telescopic handle and two wheels. The case is IATA cabin sized so it can be carried on board most airliners, and is water proof, crush proof. This style of case is the gold standard for transporting sensitive gear. On opening the case, the gear is snugly within the foam cut outs, as shown below.

The components of the system are as indicated by the coloured arrows. The base of the system is made of the Novoflex Castel-Micro motorised bellows focussing system, marked by the yellow arrow. It is controlled by a control panel shown by the red arrow. The bellows assembly is made into a dovetail which can be mounted on any Arca Swiss style head. The lens is the rather amazing Rodenstock Switar 105mm/f5.6 FL lens, which is optimised at f/5.6 and from 1X to 4X magnification. This is indicated by the green arrow. The blue arrow shows the Alpa FPS Focal Plane Shutter system, which provides an electronically controlled focal plane shutter. In another bag, is the digital back, which in our review sample is the Phase One IQ3 100 Mp digital back.

The right side of the case is double layered, and with the top layer moved to the side, the lower layer is laid out neatly with accessories and power supply components.

The system as it is setup. I only used it up to 1X magnification, as watches are not so small that we need a higher magnification to cover the full frame CMOS sensor of the Phase One IQ 3 100 which measures 53.7mm x 40.4mm providing a native resolution of 11608 x 8708 pixels. This is massive! And though the back is not the most current offering from Phase One, it is the largest physical size of any sensor in a medium format digital back. The Phase One IQ4 150 has a sensor which is the same dimensions, though they pack 150MP into it instead of 100MP. Installed, and ready to shoot, the system looks like this. In the setup photograph below, the digital back is shown by the green arrow.

The purple arrow shows the Novoflex control unit connected by an RJ45 wire to the Castel-Micro motorised bellows. The Alpa FPS is connected also to the bellows unit so that it can command the bellows motor to advance by one step after each shot has been taken. The yellow arrow shows this connection. And the wireless flash trigger is also connected to the FPS shown by the blue arrow. The FPS is set for a shutter speed of 1/125th of a second as the sync speed. And the red arrow shows the cable which connects the shutter to the digital back.

This setup is a top end system capable of producing outstanding images. The system is very flexible, and the parts comprise of many individual components which are class leading on itself. But the assembly of the whole is more than its parts. To me, the hero component is the lens, especially when used with a top of the line digital back. And the other components enable the two to extract the maximum image quality from the system.

The Phase One digital back is well known as a top of the line image capture system. The supplied back was an older IQ3 100, which is excellent. And the system can use the latest IQ4 150 back as well. With the IQ4 back, the image quality is even better, together with improvements of ergonomics and additional functionality.

The Phase One IQ4 150 is shown here. The back looks identical to the IQ3 100 used for this article, with the sensor being the same physical dimensions, though the number of pixels is different.

As mentioned, the lens is superb and the key element, the hero so to speak, of this setup. The Alpagon/Rodenstock Switar 105 mm f/5.6 FL is critically sharp from its widest open aperture of f/5.6, and has very little distortion. This lens is also very small and light. The lens was originally adapted by Rodenstock from the Linos Inspec.x L, a 105mm focal length industrial lens and was designed to cover 82mm line-scan sensors from 1:3 and higher magnifications. The lens sports a floating element, which can be manually adjusted using a scale on the barrel to minimise distortion at close focusing distances.

The lens included in the system is the Alpagon/Rodenstock Switar 105mm f/5.6 lens.

Rodenstock adapted it with an aperture for photography. But as delivered by Rodenstock, it has no ability to focus, thus need a bellows or helicoid is required. It also does not have a shutter, so in addition shutter system is needed. For this, Alpa chose the Novoflex Castel-Micro and their own FPS system respectively. The Castel-Micro is an electronically controlled motorised bellow system which features a very high precision motor driven system and able to do this at a high level of repeatability.

As for the shutter, a standard shutter like the Copal and Cambo/Phase One X-Shutter cannot be mounted on the lens. For use with strobes, the electronic shutter on the digital back also cannot be used. An external focal plane shutter is the only option. Alpa selected the use of their own FPS shutter system, which offers an electronically controlled mechanical focal plane shutter. The FPS also serves as the body of this assembled camera system. The lens can also be mounted on a camera with a focal plane shutter like the Phase One XF or the Fujifilm GFX with an appropriate adapter, but will be more bulky and heavier.

In my use case, I was not able to exploit the full potential of the lens as I did not require the larger magnifications.

Next week

I will explore how I use this setup to focus stack images for watch photography.